When the year turned, I was reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, something I’ve been intending to read for years, but was jogged into by Sam Byers recommending John E Woods’ translation for Everyman’s Library. I’m currently about halfway through its 800-odd pages, but it sits neglected on my bedside cabinet because of other reading commitments.
A rush of reviewing work at the beginning of the year (a good time for new fiction in the literary calendar) brought me Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous The Woes of the True Policeman, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel and Niall Griffiths’ A Great Big Shining Star. I don’t want to pre-empt my reviews, except to say that anyone who read and loved either of Bolaño’s ‘big’ novels and has been discouraged or disoriented by the flood of slighter pieces from his backlist and bottom drawer work should definitely give this one a look. And that the good things you’ve been hearing about the Royle are justified. And that the Griffiths, while familiar in its style from his previous novels (a good thing), takes an interesting turn in its subject matter.
But, in the manner of this blog, I’m interested not so much in what I can say about those particular books as in how they arrange themselves in my wider reading. Thomas Chadwick wrote a piece for Litro recently in which he took exception to the demands of the publishing/marketing/reviewing machine that insists on an immediate response to new books. As a result, he said, i) the critical responses are rushed and so unconsidered and ii) don’t take account of the longer-term effects that books have on the reader, as they slowly sink to the deeper levels of the consciousness.
I couldn’t agree more, while also accepting that a certain level of cultural hoo-ha is essential to the continuation of the publishing industry in its current form, however doomed and knackered that may be. What would happen if we abolished literary prizes, and the whole hardback/paperback two-step publication process, and just brought out books and let them find their readerships – and their critics – according to the timescales and schedules of those parties, rather than the imperatives of the publishers and the media?
Well (and I sense a digression coming: I do intend to come back to Thomas Mann in a minute) quite apart from the damage it would do to the already shaky economic model, my first thought is that it would be psychologically disastrous for authors. Working on the maxim that no writer can ever be truly satisfied with what they’ve produced, it must be a blessed relief to send off a book to your editor and finally have done with it, no matter that the little boat you’re setting down to voyage bravely over the waves is, you suspect, inherently unseaworthy and likely to go down with all hands. Continue reading
‘I wish you way more than luck.’ I just read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address for the first time, after finding it by accident in the back of an anthology that I only opened because I noticed it was mis-shelved.
A small (though poignant) moment in my reading life, but it points to a crucial fact in the whole paper vs digital book debate: that the books we read have lives before and after the moment of reading, and this is an aspect of the wider reading experience that ebooks have yet to seriously engage with.
You should read, if you haven’t, Tim Parks’ eloquent pro-digital piece in the New York Review of Books ‘E-Books Can’t Burn’. Parks’ central argument is that “Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate” – that is, when it comes down to it, the experience of literature is all about the act, in the moment, of reading the words on the page. Everything else is extraneous flim-flam or decoration.
I agree, up to a point, and the point is this: that we forget most of what we read, no matter how good or bad it was, and if we want our reading to make a more permanent mark on our consciousness than the pattering of synapses in the particular moment that we have the book in our hands, then we need those words to have some ongoing presence in our lives. We need the lines of communication to be left open.
You might jot down important bits in a notebook, you might tattoo them somewhere on your body, or you might put the book back on the shelf in the hope that, should you need to find it again, you’ll be able to.
Some books you read, and you know you’ll never look at it again. There it goes, happily or unhappily, onto the charity shop pile. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad book. Escapism or distraction reading – and all reading involves an element of these things – is as pure an experience, in Parks’ sense, as the deep connection with a piece of fiction that you know, as you read it, will leave your life somehow changed. But unfortunately our brains – or my brain, at least – don’t necessarily hold onto those connections. They slip, they go.
For an e-book to hold that potential mnemonic effect, it would have to have some function whereby you hover over its icon and a bits of text that you’d highlighted, and tags you’d added, float out in a cloud. It’s not just that you’ve got to be able to annotate digital books, but that there’s got to be some subtle, multi-sensory, non-intrusive way for the book to keep reminding you what it holds, or what it holds for you.
This function, in the physical book, is performed by covers, spines, bookmarks, bent pages and post-its, scribbles and exclamation marks, not to mention the things that you can do with the physical book: where you shelve it, how prominently and what next to. Has anyone worked out, for instance, what’s going to become of the ‘downstairs toilet book’ – it would a shame if that genre went extinct just because people don’t keep ereaders in their loos.
The paper books you own are, as I said in a previous post, quoting William Gaddis, the “graphic index of your mind”. And all the trivial, extraneous factors that live in and around the physical book do a real job of work: building up a subtle web of connectivity between the read book (or the unread book) and us, our minds.
Books do more than furnish a room, they work as an external hard drive, a back-up of who we are. The same goes for digital books, obviously, but a ‘desktop’ is not a wall of shelves. They’re not there, nagging away (a very low-key nagging), every day, reminding us of what we’ve read, and who we are.
My good friend Neil was around at the weekend and, wandering around the house, he exclaimed at the books on the shelves: ‘Oh, I’ve read that! I’d forgotten you lent me that.’
Later that night, working my way through William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, I came across this:
Esther liked books out where everyone could see them, a sort of graphic index to the intricate labyrinth of her mind arrayed to impress the most casual guest, a system of immediate introduction which she had found to obtain in a number of grimy intellectual households in the EastVillage.
The two moments converged in my mind to form a crucial (if hardly original) clause in the Future of the Book debate: books’ utility extends far beyond the reading of them. The fact is, at the point of reading, the actual decoding of their text, a dog-eared paperback and a Kindle are roughly equivalent, give or take the odd pencil inscription and the instinctual, tactile, even multi-sensory, interface the one gives that the other lacks.
But books are at work before and after this moment, and particularly on the shelves, though I don’t mean in the Powellian sense of merely furnishing the room. They do indeed, offer a “graphic index to the labyrinth of the mind” – a wonderful phrase, no matter that Gaddis seems to be sending poor Esther up, lumping her in with those East Villagers for whom all books are coffee table books, even when they’re correctly shelved.
My point is that the index is available not just to visiting hipsters, keen to get an angle on who I am by where I shelve my Snyder, but to me myself. My book shelves, to be obvious for a moment, carry those books that I’ve read (all or part of) and those that I haven’t. I should be able to find them when I need them, but their permanent presence, at an almost ambient, background level, continually reminds me that I have read them, helps me keep them in mind. They are the subtle mementos of themselves that Neil, having returned my books – good lad that he is – no longer had.
I haven’t used a Kindle enough to know what happens to the books once you’ve read them. Obviously they can stay on there, space is not an issue, but how is their continuing presence felt? If it is only as an verbal entry on a list of titles, then that is a poor index indeed to what I have read, learned and experienced in my encounters with them. By putting my finished and unfinished books on my shelves, rather than deleting or recycling them, I am building an external, physical mnemonic to my personal, private intellectual life, a machine to help me live and think. If they look nice too, well that’s just a bonus.
Two further posts following this line of thought:
January reading: Mann, Bolaño, Royle, Griffiths, ‘slow criticism’, the graphic index of your mind Part III (what happens when my kids want to go online to research their homework…)